Amtrak rolls out assigned first-class seating on some 'Acela Express'

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Passengers work at first-class tables on an Acela Express in 2014.
Bob Johnston
Passengers buying first-class seats will receive this message about assigned seating.

WASHINGTON — Beginning this week, Amtrak will offer assigned first-class seating on one daily Acela Express in each direction between New York and Washington, and on one Saturday-only trip from New York to Boston.

Initially, the trains offering first class reserved seats are as follows:

— Northbound from New York: Saturday 8 a.m. (train number 2290)

— Southbound from New York: Monday-Friday 6 a.m. (2103); Sat. 8 a.m. (2203); Sun. 9 a.m. (2205)

— Northbound from Washington: Monday-Friday 7:50 p.m. (2128); Sat. 9:50 a.m. (2208); Sun. 7:50 p.m. (2228)

How will it work? If first class on one of these trains is added to the reservation “cart” using the Amtrak app, on, or through a reservation agent, passengers will get the message shown at right, offering the assigned-seating option.

Once purchased, a seat will be automatically assigned, but the passenger has the ability to change seats, without a fee, utilizing a pop-up seat map that appears. Florida’s Brightline reservation system has the same feature, but detecting the direction of travel isn’t entirely obvious.

Tim Griffin, Amtrak’s chief marketing officer, told Amtrak Guest Rewards Select Plus members in an email that choosing a seat in advance, “between a single or double seat, window or aisle, or a two- or four-person conference table ... makes your boarding experience more relaxed knowing your seat will be waiting for you.”

It’s not surprising Amtrak is initially testing the water with very few departures.  Assigned first class seating was originally tried on early Acela runs when the trainsets were launched in 2000, but the idea was quickly abandoned when passengers ignored the seat numbers on their tickets and sat where they wanted.

Griffin, who came to Amtrak last fall with three decades of airline marketing experience, acknowledged in an email to a Midwest Corridor passenger in January, “This is a rather intriguing issue as it is one that many customers feel rather passionately about — some want seat assignments and some want to maintain the status quo. We are actively reviewing options for addressing the desire by many for more certainty in seating. You will see some initial testing within a few months.”

Trains News Wire was part of the mad scramble for first-class seats on the surprisingly busy southbound 8 p.m. Acela out of New York’s Penn Station on April 26. Yet the passengers who had the most difficulty finding a place to sit were those boarding at the next two New Jersey intermediate stops, Newark and Metropark; people traveling together were completely out of luck. The usual “seat hogs” put briefcases and parcels next to them and didn’t look up when the boarding passengers walked by.

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